Even though hemp fabric has been used for millennium, first in Asia and the Middle East, it hasn’t been until fairly recently that this has gained popularity in western countries.
In the United States, prohibition of the cannabis sativa plant from which hemp fabric is derived, has curtailed our direct foray into this area of eco-friendly, sustainable fashion, causing manufacturers to rely on hemp grown in other countries to produce their products.
As industrial hemp in the U.S. becomes more widely accepted, thanks to its declassification in the 2018 Farm Bill as a controlled substance, farms both large and small are stepping in to an opportunity to reinvent their futures while producing a fabulously low-impact crop that brings with it myriad benefits both for the land and commercially.
The sustainable fashion or eco-fashion movement has opened a market space providing consumers with choice when it comes to how they spend their dollars, often supporting growing awareness of the negative impacts of fast fashion and discarded clothing on the environment. Entire industries have been created to accommodate ways to upcycle/recycle clothing that has seen better days or is no longer in style. Given its durability, hemp as fabric is the gift that keeps on giving. Hemp is a high yield crop producing substantially greater quantities of usable material cotton or than flax, from which linen is derived.
Hemp fabric is made from the long fibers of the plant stalks, which allows hemp material to be recycled up to seven times, more than double the recyclability of cotton, for instance. The process of separating fiber from the bark is accomplished through retting, wherein the plant stalks are soaked separating the fiber from the bark. These fibers are then spun into a continuous thread that can be woven into fabric. Hemp yields nearly double the quantity of biomass per acre than flax and is a completely usable plant. It has three to four times the tensile strength of cotton and also places ahead of linen, beaten only by spider silk, the strongest of all.
Hemp and linen are so similar in appearance that a microscopic telescope is needed to see the structural differences in the fibers and while cotton provides a softer overall feel, hemp in its finished state can be similar to cotton or when less processed, create material such as sailcloth or canvas. It can be combined with cotton or other materials to create a softer texture, but like linen responds well to washing becoming more malleable and draping beautifully over time. To achieve maximum softness quickly, washing a new item in hot water and drying it in the dryer multiple times will achieve this. Be aware however, that like any natural material, hemp will shrink and this should be considered when making purchases.
Hemp contains anti-microbial properties so it resists odor-causing bacterial, mildew and rot meaning it requires less frequent cleaning making it perfect for the traveling adventurer. Its tensile strength allows hemp-derived fabrics and resulting clothing and other items to hold its shape, though if not washed properly will, like other natural fibers, shrink. For those who spend a great deal of time outdoors, hemp is a perfect choice as it naturally filters UV light.
As environmental awareness and how we’re impacting the earth grows, demand for hemp-derived clothing and textiles will continue to grow. It is incumbent on each of us to envision a way forward that integrates this commodity into our daily lives and in so doing, does good for our planet.